Teacher Wellness

Teachers Need Trauma-Informed Care, Too

Many teachers deal with chronic stress and trauma, and these strategies help focus on adult well-being.

March 25, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

In schools across the country, teachers are receiving training in how to create trauma-informed classrooms. They’re hearing about the impacts of trauma on the body and mind and the ways in which trauma can manifest in students’ classroom behaviors, attendance, and retention. Administrators will rehearse new scripts for dealing with misconduct in ways that center empathy and restorative practice. Many schools will become places that make responding to trauma something that is transformative. Yet few will consider and address adults’ trauma.

Since the creation of the term trauma-informed care (TIC) in 2001, education has been a leading field in the world’s pursuit to understand the connections between body, mind, and behavior. As a subject matter expert with over 10 years of experience in trauma-informed care, I am encouraged to see how far-reaching this theoretical approach to interpersonal dynamics has become. However, the absence of teacher and administrator care resounds. 

While the myriad needs of the students whom we serve are paramount, trauma-informed care isn’t sustainable when educators are also traumatized or chronically stressed. As teachers, we may learn in professional development about how adverse childhood experience (ACE) scores impact learning, but not about how our own scores may impact our capacity to compartmentalize. We may hear that a calm prosody in our voice is key, then turn around to hear belittling words from those with whom we work, said in the exact manner that we were just told to refrain from. 

Teaching demands that we give, give, give. But what if we feel like we have nothing left to offer?

Empty Cup Syndrome

I created the term Empty Cup Syndrome (ECS) to describe what so many of us have felt: like we are emotionally dry but expected to have a wellspring to draw from. Worse yet, sometimes our burnout is punished, creating a cycle of shame and reprimand. In discussions about teacher turnover rates, the prospects of raising salaries and boosting benefits get much applause, but the teachers who struggle with bullying from peers and students, or who are worked past exhaustion, are overwhelmingly ignored.

ECS is real and requires systemic support. However, pushback can come from all sides. Years ago, I heard a principal argue during a training session that they were there to help traumatized students and that adult teachers should know how to handle the stress of their past without any additional help. They went on to suggest that any teacher at their school who complained of ECS should switch schools, and possibly careers. “We spend hours learning about the polyvagal systems of our students, but nothing about how our own nervous systems need help—and that’s not another pizza lunch or jeans day,” one attendee commented. 

From Covid-19 to school-based violence, teachers need trauma-informed care more than ever. With these realities in mind, what can we do to create holistically trauma-transformed schools? 

Remember: Many Teachers are Trauma Survivors, Too

From childhood trauma to recent events such as domestic or dating violence, medical trauma, and more, teachers and administrators often navigate their own real trauma. In my first teaching position, I watched as an educator was let go because they were a victim of domestic violence. The fact that they had shared in confidence that they were fleeing abuse was justified as a danger to the campus, and instead of amping up security for everyone, they were dismissed and left to be more vulnerable to further harm. 

A few years ago, a teacher disclosed to me that they were sexually assaulted on a date and had to go into the classroom the next day and act as if everything was fine. Just as we switch the script from asking why a student is misbehaving to what might be the story behind their behavior, so should we do the same with our colleagues. If a teacher seems disengaged, depressed, or overwhelmed, instead of looking at these behavioral manifestations as the problem, we can instead ask that individual how we can better support the roots of their observable actions and emotions.

Respect Each Other’s ‘Spoons’

Spoon Theory is a concept created by Christine Miserandino that individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses use to describe limited stamina. It reminds us that everyone has a different level of energy to expend throughout the day, and for some people, that energy is not easily replenished, and using it all can have devastating consequences. 

Many teachers have visible and invisible disabilities that add to their stress load, and everyone, regardless of ability, can check in and ask who is feeling depleted and who has a little extra energy, and strategize together about redistributing the energy load. Doing so may look like having teachers take turns co-planning lessons, offering regular check-ins where teachers can ask for help with tasks, and/or providing accommodations (e.g., noise-decreasing earplugs, chairs instead of required standing, etc.). These micro efforts can have systemic impacts on well-being and retention.

Prevent and Destigmatize Secondary Trauma 

Any discussion of trauma-informed care should also center secondary trauma, a potential consequence of exposure to students’ and colleagues’ trauma, and offer teachers research-informed tools with which to address it. For example, offering teachers longer or more frequent break times, options for collegiate coaching, counseling, chaplaincy, and/or support groups can all go a long way. 

So many of these resources are low to no cost, while others do require a reallocation of resources. But which would we rather have: the cost of more support services, or the cost of high turnover and frequent onboarding?

Pouring from an empty cup may be something that we have long excused as coming with the territory of teaching, but it doesn’t need to be our future. Our students need trauma-informed care in every aspect of their learning, and to live up to this objective, our teachers need to receive it, too.

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